The poll verdict of May 23 is being assayed by experts, academics and citizens across the country. Analysts and commentators have pored over the voting preferences and analysed them based on age groups, gender, regions, and several such parameters. These analyses no doubt have yielded remarkable insights into the thought pattern and preferences of the electorate. Political parties too have come to their conclusions about the causes of their performance. Howsoever brilliant these evaluations may be, certain cardinal messages remain out of the purview of these statistical disaggregation and in-house introspections. They fail to appreciate and acknowledge the new mood and the new aspirations of the nation.
To know what the overwhelming majority wants, we should first free ourselves from preconceived notions and ideological blinkers. No ideology or prescription can be valid for all times. What might have been a wonderful slogan during the post-independent decades or in the eighties and nineties doesn’t mean anything to the people today. Not that political parties are unaware of this. They are indeed painfully aware of the need to talk the language that makes sense in the current milieu. That is why manifestos of political parties try to announce schemes that would catch the attention of the vulnerable groups to hopefully nudge them. Yet the voters spurn such allurements and defy these calculations, regardless of the involvement of great minds in the framing of such awesome announcements of the Congress party.
What is lacking in political parties is a willingness to shed old ways of thinking while the electorate is now used to entirely new aspirations. People who are used to the app-culture inevitably get used to a certain speed and clarity in doing business. However, while dealing with government, this new felicity is often missing regardless of some successful e-governance initiatives. Why highly proactive and daring promises in the manifestoes fail to evoke enthusiastic response is because behind the trendy vocabulary, the electorate discovers the same old presumptions, and practices.
However, changes that new India expects cannot be understood or defined by the tools that shaped and scripted success a decade ago. The attitudes and expectations of the electorate have changed much faster than those of the political parties and bureaucracy. Parties which have well defined (and rigid) ideologies naturally become losers as they can’t keep pace. Parties who have a history of successful campaigns in the past too are at a disadvantage as they are tempted to repeat and rephrase the same old mantra. The group for whose welfare and benefit slogans are addressed might still be living in distress. But their expectations have undergone mutation.
The experience of technological changes in the form of mobile phone, internet and apps have altered their landscape of possibilities. This may not be a conscious change. Outwardly everything remains the same. The static old imagery of the poor as held by the bureaucracy and political parties is incapable of appreciating this subtle and gradual changes that have become part of their life, their approach and expectations in life. Having got used to instant messages and online money transactions, the ancient virtue of patience and the willingness to wait have lost their appeal and value.
Essentially new India is itching for a responsive and faster administration. Its collective mind is impatient with old habits. As the electorate becomes more pragmatic and mature, blind adherence to ideology will naturally be threatened unless the ideology itself is dynamic enough to harmonise with the electorate.
Once this essential message is appreciated, then the country should wake up to the imminent need to change the way governments think and act. An unchanging bureaucracy cannot satisfy new India. Administrative reforms in this country have never been an express train. Administrative reforms are all about changing styles of doing government business. It involves changing the attitudes, rules, procedures and defining outcomes and accountability. Every economist tries to remind the government about the need to continue the economic reforms and liberalise and globalise. But there is a conspiracy of silence and inertia about governance reforms. It should be reiterated that administrative reforms are not a one-time affair. It has to be a continuous process. Unless this voice of the new India is heard and heeded, disappointment will naturally set in after a reasonable wait.
Bureaucracies of developed countries too passed through this phase of non-sync with people’s expectations. Countries that could achieve this essential harmonisation alone have been able to sustain their socio-economic growth. British bureaucracy on which our governance systems are modelled, have long freed themselves from the tyranny of archaic practices. In India, we are yet to ostracise the phantoms of the colonial past and still find comfort in slow-motion ceremonial and symbolic administrative reforms.
Everyone in government should become a player in the continuous saga of transformation, innovation and adaptation. What the government should provide is the policy ecosystem where thinking differently is not treated as a sin to be visited later by enquiries. What is required is to unlock the latent creativity of the bureaucracy and provide the support and encouragement to change in order not to perish.
Former Chief Secretary to Government of Kerala and former Vice Chancellor of Malayalam University